Musically, last year was defined by a handful of events — Usher’s 8 million sold, the passing of Ray Charles, Green Day’s punk opera — but for many pop aficionados, a holy grail of the 1960s was unearthed and completed: “Smile.”
The unfinished work from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks — heard only on bootleg tapes and as solo songs on Beach Boys albums — was realized first as a live piece and then as a recording. It has been hailed as a landmark at every step. After a few years of performing shows loaded with Beach Boys hits and “Love and Mercy,” not to mention the landmark album “Pet Sounds” in its entirety, Wilson’s wife Melinda said it was time to revisit “Smile.”
“It brought back memories of the drugs we did,” Wilson says, rather seriously, “also a lot of pleasure and artistic merit. The segue from one song to another is still a shock to people, but it makes it a full, viable piece of music. ‘Smile’ is a happier album (than its predecessor ‘Pet Sounds’), more jovial.”
Wilson has grown comfortable with the work, which was begun in 1966, dropped in 1967 and approached cautiously at the start of 2004. Wilson performed “Good Vibrations” on “The Tonight Show” in January as a bit of a reminder — to casual Beach Boys fans who might have given up on the group’s leader and to Grammy voters who might not have given the album the deep listen it requires.
Wilson fidgeted nervously and stifled a few yawns backstage at “The Tonight Show,” His fatigue was understandable: Wilson, 61, and his 10-member band had just returned from Australia and New Zealand, near the tail end of a tour that preceded and then supported “Smile.” But his spirit has been one of perseverance, an attitude that made the completion of “Smile” a reality and a crowning achievement on his return to active performing and recording six years ago.
“Smile,” a song cycle Wilson and lyricist Parks started as the sonic sequel to “Pet Sounds” — a “symphony to God,” Wilson has said — has been relentlessly hailed since its release by Warner Music’s Nonesuch label in September. Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Spin and the Los Angeles Times placed the album in their year-end top 10 lists; the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll of 1,400 music critics put it at No. 2. Brit crix across the board have used the word “masterpiece” in describing “Smile.” It has gone gold in the U.K. and has sold 300,0000 in the U.S.
“He can now feel like it wasn’t a failure,” says Darian Sahanaja, the musical director of the Brian Wilson Band. “That’s the most important thing to come out of it all. From the first performances at Royal Albert Hall on, you could feel the demons floating away as he was getting more confident with the music. That was beautiful to watch.”
At Sunday’s Grammy ceremony, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” is up for pop vocal album; the track “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is up for rock instrumental perf; and Mark Linnett could win the nonclassical album engineering trophy. Neither Wilson nor the Beach Boys have ever won a Grammy.
But Friday night will be all Beach Boys as Wilson will be honored by the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation as the man of the year. Artists such as Neil Young, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Eyed Peas, Jeff Beck and Jamie Cullumwill be playing Wilson’s music at the Hollywood Palladium to raise money for the MusiCares’ Financial Assistance Program, which ensures that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need.
Wilson is being honored for his artistic contributions as well as his philanthropic efforts. He has made appearances to support the Carl Wilson Foundation for cancer research, Adopt-a-Minefield and Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit, and last month appeared on NBC’s tsunami relief telecast.
“I like to make disabled people feel a little better, especially children,” Wilson says. “I like to bring joy to people.”
Recording Academy prexy Neil Portnow praises Wilson’s dedication and creativity as well as his ability to reach listeners across generations.
“As a kid I felt like I missed some of it, having been overly focused on the Beatles,” says Portnow, a bassist. “But as I got a little more sophisticated in my tastes and was playing in cover bands, I found it was pretty damn hard to replicate the Beach Boys songs. Just the vocal elements were staggering to me.”
It’s intriguing then that Wilson’s work in the Beach Boys, first with singles like “In My Room” and “Warmth of the Sun” before the albums “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” challenges not only a teen, but Sahanaja, who works up songs and then presents them to Wilson, teaching parts to the rest of the band.
The goal with the Brian Wilson Band since its inception in 1999 has been to present the Beach Boys music as it was recorded.
“Any time the Beach Boys performed, they simplified the music just because of the manpower,” says Sahanaja, a fan with his own band, the Wondermints, long before he started working with Wilson.
“They were a rock band, this band is a large band. His studio vision was never reproduced live and the music deserves more than just five guys playing it onstage.
“The way (‘Smile’) is structured with three continuous movements, there’s 15 minutes of playing without stopping. Brian’s never done that. It was ultimately satisfying.”
Wilson and the band returned to large stages worldwide in 2000 with a tour featuring “Pet Sounds” played in its entirety with the backing of symphony orchestras. The years between “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” found them recording a disc of new material, “Gettin’ in Over My Head” (Rhino), and touring.
Wilson, whose list of personal faves is topped by “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” wants to return to the studio to make what he calls “a hard rock album with a real Phil Spector sound.” In the last several months, he has completed about 15 songs to be considered for the project.
But 2005 promises to be more “Smile.” The band played Japan two weeks ago and is now assembling another tour of the States plus a visit to European festivals.
A docu on the creation of the album, “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’ ” will receive its theatrical debut at the South by Southwest music fest in Austin, Texas, on March 18. Wilson, Parks, filmmaker David Leaf and engineer Mark Linett will speak. Rhino will release a package of “Beautiful Dreamer” and a “Smile” concert this year, most likely in the summer — the perfect season for Beach Boys music.